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The architect and the merchant

Sunday, April 11, 1999

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic

The public's continuing fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright 40 years after his death befits a genius widely viewed as the century's most important architect.

Edgar J. Kaufmann (right) and Frank Lloyd Wright. (Pedro Guerrero) 

This title crowns a long and tempestuous life of design leadership and a philosophy that "organically" linked architecture to its site.

But without his eager clients, Wright (1867-1959) would never have found his opportunities. No one stands higher in this regard than Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann. The Kaufmanns carefully weighed 12 Wright projects. Just three were built: Fallingwater, its guest house and Kaufmann's office in his Pittsburgh department store.

To acknowledge that long relationship, the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art is presenting the exhibition "Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright," through Oct. 3.

The show explores the episodic history of the Pittsburgh mogul, his wife/cousin, Liliane, and Wright, a mercurial architect who revived a flagging career with the house he designed for them on a waterfall.

The show and catalog ($29.95) contain several revelations. The guest curator is architectural historian Richard Cleary, assistant professor at the School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin. He formerly taught at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture.

A Wright drawing of the unbuilt Boulder House meant for the Kaufmanns. (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) 

Cleary, working with Dennis McFadden, curator of the Heinz center, has selected drawings and other items for the exhibition. They range from preliminary sketches and annotated construction details to presentation sheets showing how Kaufmann participated in Fallingwater's design.

In an article published in this spring's Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz., Cleary gives Kaufmann more credit for being interested in Wright at an earlier stage than previously thought.

It has often been written that Edgar Kaufmann Jr., later curator of architecture at The Museum of Modern Art, first brought his parents to an awareness of Wright during Junior's 1934 stay at Wright's home in Spring Green, Wis.

But Cleary has found that the senior Kaufmann was conversant with Wright's work years before asking him to design a retreat along Bear Run in Fayette County.

As head of a department store, Kaufmann, who was a Yale University graduate, had experimented from the mid-1920s with new marketing techniques to increase store sales. Sophisticated advertising and new product displays were becoming selling techniques, increasing customer awareness of style.

Progress and modernity, Cleary writes, was highlighted by the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. American merchandisers, designers and manufacturers who visited the show were convinced modern design could be profitable in the United States.

Kaufmann's, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor in New York, staged its own "International Exposition of Industrial Arts" in 1926, representing 30 great periods of design from around the world.

Two years later, Kaufmann commissioned New York designer Joseph Urban to redesign Kaufmann's first floor. Urban's elaborate moderne plan was rejected, but in 1929 the store's in-house magazine was dedicated to "the spirit of the modern movement in all phases of life."

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Two authorities on modernism - the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Richard Bach and interior designer Paul T. Frankl - gave seminars for Kaufmann's executives. Then, in 1930, Pittsburgh architect Benno Janssen designed a simpler moderne first floor than Urban's for the department store. Its debut was a Hollywood-style gala.

Cleary theorizes that Frankl, who like other design people felt America needed to become modernized on its own terms, probably suggested Wright to Kaufmann; Wright was doing just that.

"One of the purposes of the exhibition," Cleary said from Austin, "is to bring home to Pittsburghers and others the impact of the Kaufmann-Wright friendship. Kaufmann was not just about being 'old money-bags' [as Wright once called the magnate]. Kaufmann (1885-1955) played a historic role in American merchandising.

"Both of the Kaufmanns were sentient people who created Fallingwater. Their patronage was similar to that in the Renaissance [and an ongoing program]. And Wright also had a deep commitment. This was not just a commercial arrangement. It lasted a long time - 25 years. And Edgar Jr. kept the commitment to his death."

Cleary believes Edgar Sr. was deeply involved in ideas about the future of Point State Park. Kaufmann fed Wright his plans for theaters and restaurants that the architect incorporated into his radical Point projects.

"It was inevitable that a park was coming for the Point," Cleary said. "Kaufmann knew it was coming, and whatever was coming would cause delay and brouhaha. Kaufmann, I think, was holding out for a different vision: urban rather than rural."

The plan finally approved would celebrate the region's early history, not its future potential.

"Kaufmann's stance was probably a rear-guard action," Cleary said, since the Allegheny Conference on Community Development wanted the park to honor the city's early years.

"In Kaufmann's plans for the Point, the Civic Light Opera was very important. Kaufmann suggested to Wright that if the two separate plans Wright advocated didn't go, then how about just doing the amphitheater?"

Kaufmann had been working with architect Dahlen K. Ritchey, who had designed the forward-looking exhibits at the department store. When city fathers rejected Wright's Point Park Civic Center projects, Kaufmann asked Ritchey to turn the amphitheater idea into what became the Civic Arena.

Its retracting roof was meant to recall the CLO's old summers at Pitt Stadium, but the arena's acoustics proved unsatisfactory. The CLO then moved to Heinz Hall and then to the Benedum Center.

Ritchey, of Bradford Woods, recalls that Kaufmann imitated a hen with chicks under its wings when he described the effect he wanted for the arena's moving roof.

Cleary said Kaufmann's ideas for the Point were influenced by Wright's famed Broadacre City plan. This was a large miniaturized mockup of a suburban community. Kaufmann helped pay for its completion and it was displayed at the department store as well as advertised in the newspapers.

For this exhibition, Cleary's University of Texas students have built a 5-by-6-foot model of Wright's second Point scheme and another of Fallingwater. The last is designed to explain the house's construction and site in a 4-foot-square format made mostly of bronze. Mahogany is used to indicate load-supporting masonry, and Plexiglas is used for the house's concrete. After the exhibition, both models will join the Heinz Architectural Center's collection.

"Wright believed deeply in his architecture's ability to change lives for the better, and the Kaufmanns shared this conviction," Cleary said. "Wright's greatest gift to the Kaufmanns was his plans for Boulder House," a vacation retreat in Palm Springs, Calif.

But this house would not to be built. Edgar (1885-1955) was not well and in pain, possibly from cancer, Cleary recalled.

"Then there was the Kaufmanns' failed relationship with Liliane (1889-1952) and Liliane's accidental death [she overdosed on barbiturates in her Fallingwater bedroom and died in Mercy Hospital]. Also, Wright's projects take a lot of time to develop and build. The Korean War may have slowed construction because of shortages of materials."

Cleary has an answer to whether Kaufmann tried to spite Wright by choosing Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra, a former associate Wright had turned against, to design the Kaufmann house in the Palm Springs desert.

"The desert house comes before the Boulder House. Neutra was at the time the hot architect in Los Angeles and Kaufmann was impetuous. And Boulder House was happening at the same time as the Point plans. Neutra stood for steel and glass houses. Boulder House was Wright's revenge, being so anti-steel and glass.

"Wright wrote to Liliane, 'I'll get you out of that little house in Palm Springs.'

"But in the process Liliane just disappears. That's really sad. She was an amazing woman and had strong ideas about taste. She was deeply engaged in the design of Kaufmann's Vendome Shops. She is hard to track in Fallingwater's specifics but did have concern for the fabrics. Her interest in Boulder House and the unbuilt Rhododendron Chapel that Wright designed for Fallingwater may have been a way to save the marriage."

During his years of research, Cleary has become aware of another historic factor that bothers him. "We're at the cusp of living memory of the Kaufmanns - and the 1940s as well. Somehow we have to record that period at all levels before there is no one left who witnessed them."

Heinz Center curator Dennis McFadden said he is very pleased with "Merchant Prince and Master Builder."

"Richard Cleary is a first-rate historian and has brought more depth to this subject than was known. That's what excites me most: The exhibition will bring local and national attention to area buildings. And it shows what you can do in an exhibition that you can't do in a house and vice versa.

"The Kaufmanns were extraordinary clients who challenged Wright. He responded to their wishes and in doing so challenged them again."

McFadden will leave his post in June to become assistant director of the Davis Museum of Art at Wellesley College, near Boston.

"No other architectural museum is like this one at the Carnegie," he said. "The Heinz Architectural Center [founded by Mrs. H.J. Heinz II in 1993] is still young, and it's good for it to have a range of directions. I hope my successor will find a direction that's different from what has been done."

There is another question on the horizon: Will the center's installation of Wright's San Francisco field office, purchased for about $100,000 with the support of the museum's Women's Committee, be moved?

"It's a great draw, but it limits exhibition space," McFadden said. "Do you find another place? How do you do that? There are an enormous number of questions. We're exploring options."

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